Facebook Drone Is Ready To Fly - InformationWeek

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Facebook Drone Is Ready To Fly

The social network aims to provide Internet access from the air to those without connectivity options.

Drones: 10 Novel Uses For Your City
Drones: 10 Novel Uses For Your City
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Facebook is ready to begin testing a full-scale version of its Aquila drone, one of an eventual fleet of drones designed to provide limited Internet service to the estimated 10% of the world without reliable network access.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has a 42-meter wingspan, the length of a Boeing 737-900ER. Though its carbon-fiber structure weighs only 880 lbs (400 kg), it cannot take off on its own.

When Facebook tests Aquila in the US later this year, the company plans to lift it into the air using balloons, the means by which rival Google has chosen to provide Internet connectivity in remote areas. Facebook has opted to use UAVs because they can be controlled more easily than balloons.

In March, Facebook conducted its first drone test, using a smaller model, in the UK.

(Image: Facebook)

(Image: Facebook)

Once deployed for normal operation in support of Facebook's Internet.org program, the company's drones are expected to remain aloft for 90 days, flying at an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet on solar power. While aloft, they will relay Internet signals from service provider ground stations to remote subscribers.

In a blog post, Jay Parikh, VP of global engineering and infrastructure at Facebook, said that the company's researchers in Woodland Hills, Calif., have achieved a breakthrough that advances the state of the art in laser communications.

"They've designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at 10s of Gb per second -- approximately 10x faster than the previous state-of-the-art in the industry -- to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away," said Parikh, noting that the laser system, when complete, will make the company's airborne network possible.

(Image: Facebook)

(Image: Facebook)

Facebook says its mission is to make the world more open and connected. In furtherance of that goal, the company in 2013 launched an initiative called Internet.org to provide free Internet access in underserved parts of the world through local mobile network operators. In May, the company claimed to have brought 9 million people online in less than a year through the program.

Internet.org, however, has faced significant criticism for providing free access only to select websites, called favoritism by critics who contend the selection violates the principle of net neutrality. In April, several tech companies in India distanced themselves from Internet.org over concerns that the program created a walled garden of favored partners instead of full Internet access. And in May, a coalition of human rights groups wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg objecting to the program.

Only a few days earlier, Facebook addressed what it characterized as myths and facts about Internet.org in a FAQs post. In its response to the "myth" that Internet.org violates the principles of net neutrality, Facebook asserted that net neutrality is an issue for network operators, not Internet.org.

"Net Neutrality seeks to ensure that network operators don't limit access to services people want to use, and Internet.org's goal is to provide more people with access," the company explained. "It is good for consumer choice and consumer value. Net neutrality and Internet.org can and must co-exist."

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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